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Nicholas Stanosheck
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The Introduction of the "Luminous Religion" to China

It is unclear exactly when Christianity reached Tibet, but it seems likely that it had arrived there by the sixth century. The ancient territory of the Tibetans stretched farther west and north than the present-day Tibet, and they had many links with the Turkic and Mongolian tribes of Central Asia. It seems likely that Christianity entered the Tibetan world around 549, the time of a remarkable conversion of the White Huns. A strong church existed in Tibet by the eighth century. The Assyrian patriarch Timothy I (780-823) wrote from Baghdad c.794 of the need to appoint another bishop for Tibet (Syriac: Beth Tuptaye), and in a letter of 782 he mentioned the Tibetans as one of the significant Christian communities of the Assyrian Church. The seat of the Assyrian bishops of Tibet was probably at Lhasa, and Assyrian Christians are likely to have been active in Tibet as late as the thirteenth century, prior to the popular extension of Buddhism.

Carved into a large boulder at Tankse, Ladakh, once part of Tibet but now in India, are three crosses and some inscrīptions. The rock dominates the entrance to the pass at Drangste, one of the main ancient trade routes between Lhasa and Bactria. The crosses are clearly of the Church of the East, and one of the words, written in Sogdian, appears to be "Jesus". Another inscrīption in Sogdian reads, "In the year 210 came Nosfarn from Samarkhand as emissary to the Khan of Tibet". It is possible that the inscrīptions were not related to the crosses, but even on their own the crosses bear testimony to the power and influence of Christianity in that area. Christianity was sufficiently accepted in the region to warrant carving the Christian symbol to protect travelers.

When Christianity was first introduced to China three major religious systems, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, were already popular there, woven into the ancient traditions and customs of the people. The average Chinese did not regard himself as an exclusive adherent of any one of the three, but rather as a follower of a general Chinese religion made up of both animistic and polytheistic elements which represented a syncretistic conglomeration of ideas. Thus the Church of the East encountered grave difficulties as it sought to introduce the “Luminous Religion” to China. Only in the periods of the Tang (A.D. 618-906) and Yuan (A.D. 1206-1368) dynasties did the gospel enterprise have any considerable degree of success.

It is difficult to determine the exact time when the Christian gospel first reached China. The ancient Breviary of the Syrian church of Malabar (India) states that “By the means of St. Thomas the Chinese...were converted to the truth...By means of St. Thomas the kingdom of heaven flew and entered into China...The Chinese in commemoration of St. Thomas do offer their adoration unto Thy most Holy Name, O God.” Some authors have claimed to have found in a very ancient Taoist writing evidence of a spiritual awakening in China in the latter part of the first century.

Arthur Lloyd relates the story of the Han emperor, Ming-Ti, who in A.D. 64 supposedly had a dream on several successive nights of a man in golden raiment who held in his hand a bow and arrows and pointed the emperor to the West. The emperor was much impressed and resolved to send an embassy to the West to seek out “the true man” of his vision. En route they met two monks from the West leading a white horse laden with scrīptures. They returned with them to China, where the monks gave their message. They died in A.D. 70 but left some writings, out of which developed the “ Sutra of the Forty-Two Sections,” a collection of logia containing short, pithy sayings of “the Master” which closely resembled Christian teachings. It has been conjectured that the two monks were actually Christians, disciples of Thomas from India.

Active trade for centuries between China and the West could have brought Christian missionaries at an early date. But aside from one rather obscure reference in the Adversus Gentes by Arnobius (A.D. 303) to “the Chinese as among those united in the faith of Christ, “there is little or no evidence of Christians in China before the Seventh Century. But from then on the evidence of Christianity in China during the T’ang Era (A.D. 618-906) are numerous, including references in Chinese writings, imperial edicts, and in particular the famous inscrīptions on the so-called “Nestorian Monument”. During the Táng period conditions were favorable for the introduction of foreign faiths: the lines of international communication were wide open; foreign trade flourished; the government was tolerant toward all faiths; all foreigners were welcome in various capacities. It was in this T’ang Era that the Christianity of the Church of the East first came to be known as the “Luminous Religion” (Jǐng Jiào, 景教).

The “Nestorian Monument” was erected in A.D. 781 near the capital city of Cháng-ān, or Hsianfu (where it was discovered in 1625), to commemorate the charitable acts of a Bactrian Christian who had become noted for his gifts to the poor and his funds for restoring and building churches and monasteries. The top of the monument is adorned not only with a cross but also with the Buddhist emblem of the lotus and the Taoist symbol of the cloud. The writer of the inscrīption was one Adam, a leader of the “Luminous Religion,” and the calligraphist was one Lu Hsiu-yen (two who later collaborated in some Buddhist writing).

The earlier part of the inscrīption is in Chinese, with certain Buddhist terms used to express Christian ideas, probably indicating that a distinctly Christian vocabulary had not yet developed in China. The doctrinal statement mentions the triune of God, the Creator of all things, the fall of mankind, the incarnation and virgin birth, the holy life and ascension of Christ, the rite of Baptism, and certain scrīptures, but no mention is made of Christ's redemptive death for sin. Following this is an account of how Alopen of Dà-chín (the Near East, especially Syria or Persia) arrived in Ch’angan in 635 bearing the scrīptures. He was welcomed by the emperor T’ai Tsung, the founder of the Tang Dynasty and one of the most famous of Chinese rulers. The emperor, having examined the sacred writings, ordered their translation and the preaching of their message. He also directed the building of a Christian monastery in his capital. According to the inscrīption, his successor, the emperor Kao Tsung, also encouraged Christianity and ordered the building of a monastery in each province of his domain.

The second part of the monument was written in Syriac and listed some sixty-seven names: one bishop, twenty-eight presbyters, and thirty-eight monks. Some of these have been verified from Assyrian church records. The inscrīption displays considerable grace of literary style, and the allusions and phraseology reveal competence in both Chinese and Syriac and familiarity with both Buddhism and Taoism. Ancient Christian manuscrīpts were also discovered at Dunhuang from about the same period and are written in the literary style of the Monument. These include a “Hymn to the Trinity” and refer to at least thirty Christian books, indicating that considerable Christian literature was in circulation.

The 250-year span of the Christian movement in the T’ang period was characterized by vicissitudes of imperial favor and prosperity, persecution and decline. Christianity fared badly during the reign of the infamous Dowager Wu (689-699), who was an ardent Buddhist. However, several succeeding emperors were favorable, and the missionary forces were reinforced from time to time. Furthermore, a number of Christians served in high official positions. By the end of the eighth century a metropolitan had been consecrated and assigned by the Mesopotamian patriarch. About the middle of the ninth century the ardent Taoist emperor Wu Tsung proscribed Buddhism and ordered all monks and nuns to return to private life; he included all the Christians in this interdiction. It was probably in connection with this persecution that the Nestorian Monument was buried or hidden and did not come to light until modern times. The Christian church apparently continued in a feeble state for some time, though isolated Christian remnants survived. The resurgence of the Christian faith had to await the Mongol conquest and the rise of the Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century.

The trade routes of the ‘Silk Road’ are also known to have reached Korea, Japan, and what is today eastern Russia by this time, contributing to these exchanges. Against this background it is from China, in particular from Chang-an during the Tang Dynasty, that Christianity also first came to Korea and Japan. In the case of Korea, where Christianity seems to have been present, evidence has been found in the Korean Chronicles Sanguk Yusa and Sanguksa, for the presence of ‘Nestorian’ Christianity during the united Silla Dynasty (661-935). This is not unexpected in the light of the known presence of Koreans at the Tang capital, Chang-an, in the seventh to ninth centuries.

The later inclusion of present-day Korea within the Mongol Empire (from 1236) opened the peninsula to Nestorian missionaries who enjoyed full acceptance from the early khans, throughout their territories. In the fourteenth century, when the Koryo state remained under Mongol control, Koryo crown princes were held hostage in Khanbaliq and often forced to marry Mongol princesses. Some of these were Nestorian Christians.


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english, mandarin
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